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Food for Thought, Thought for Action!

THE VALUE OF HISTORY

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By

Neil Munro

There would seem to be at least three possible viewpoints of the value of history. Clearly such a statement calls for the qualification that the positions represented by these viewpoints are unlikely to be sharply demarcated, but will generally merge into one another.

The first is the view that history is bunk, often positively harmful, and that we should have as little to do with it as we can manage. Such an opinion would fit a strong belief that all that matters is the future, that preoccupation with the past can only hold us back, and indeed that lessons learned from the past are highly likely to be wrong and to lead us on to worse mistakes in the future. Support, of a sort, for these opinions may be sought from Hegel’s comment that people and governments have never learned from history, although any further investigation of Hegel will result in that support drying up rapidly, since his whole philosophical position puts history into a pre-eminent position. Holders of this negative view of the value of history may among other things point to the disasters arising from the tendency among army generals to attempt to re-fight the battles of earlier wars, while ignoring the opportunities and dangers presented by subsequent advances in technology.

Others who might find themselves in this camp are those with a particularly strong conviction of the impossibility of disentangling historical truth from propaganda, or at least from the views and prejudices of those who write history, a subject discussed in detail in the first essay, on objectivity.

There are many incontestable truths in these views, and they should certainly inform any position that might be held on the value of history, but to hold them exclusively seems indicative of a certain poverty of overall outlook. Perhaps the real value of this position is that it obliges those who do not hold it constantly to examine their own views, to ensure that they are not vulnerable to such negativism.

A different position on the subject, and one that in practice is likely to be held at least to a limited extent by all but the most diehard negativists, is the belief that there are certain utilitarian uses to which history can be put. There is much support to be found for this view, and a great deal of evidence. Take for example the role of history as a social lubricant. `An acquaintance with history is agreeable to us as sociable and conversable creatures” wrote Joseph Priestley, and John Locke believed not only that history was a great moral and political teacher, but was a proper study for a man of business in the world” and “a gentleman”.

E H Carr wrote, “the function of the historian is to master and understand, and the past as the key to the understanding of the present`. And Hegel, in the remark quoted above, does not say that we cannot learn from the past, only that we do not, and it is not difficult to find instances where he is right. Very recently there were those who, perhaps with Vietnam or Afghanistan in mind, warned that going into the Balkans militarily would be a great deal easier than coming out. No, no said our leaders, six months should do it. Less obvious are the cases where we just may have learned something. There were for example many who felt that Saddam should have been toppled after the Gulf War. Failure to do so may not have left an ideal situation, but neither is the West tied to the appalling task of trying to govern Iraq, as it is Kosovo.

The fact is that a large number of influential people has always believed that there is a very great deal to be learned from history. We have noted Locke’s view, and Collingwood points out that Polybius, writing in the Rome of the late republic, thought history worth learning because it provided a training ground for political life, not, it is true, because it would enable us to prevent things happening, but because it would teach us how to respond to them when they did happen. All those who for centuries have studied Machiavelli, must have believed that they could get some things right, or less wrong, by observing the apparent consequences of certain courses of actions. The art of statecraft and diplomacy all over the world is heavily influenced by the study of history. Is it credible that the relative peace of the world between 1815 and 1914, and again since 1945, owes nothing to an awareness of history by statesmen and diplomats? Doubtless the wisdom sought by our political leaders could be taught purely theoretically, but as Seneca said, “the journey is long by way of precepts, but short and effective through examples.`

There is in addition a large number of what we might call “special pleaders” who make use of historical events to pursue their own aims. A small sample of these could include Labour Party stalwarts keeping their flame alive by reference to Tolpuddle Martyrs and Jarrow Marchers; the Victorian Samuel Smiles using the lives of such great past figures as Newton and Watt to convince his own age of the virtues in which he believed; feminism, constructed at least in part out of a particular interpretation of the history of women down the centuries; and Ulster Unionism maintaining its strength by annual appeals to history represented by the Orange Marches.

On an even more mundane level, we may care to note in passing the highly practical values placed on history by those whose livelihoods depend on having some understanding of past trends in share prices or the past performance of race horses and their blood lines. Indeed the very existence of the phrase “track record” is an indication of the extent to which awareness of the value of history permeates mankind’s consciousness.

That is no bad cue to start to move away from the second, or utilitarian position towards the final view, which takes a far deeper view of what history means to us as human beings. Arguably this is the area in which philosophy should primarily interest itself.

A simple, if uncompromising expression of this viewpoint is that history is simply representative of our whole culture. That need not be seen as an extreme position, but even among those who do find it so, many will agree that history is an inescapable part of what it is to be human. Awareness of our place in time is part of what we call consciousness. We are creatures who Plan the future and who remember and assess the past. We do it as individuals and we do it collectively, and we have done so since folk tales were told and sung around the campfires of our distant past. Those who are cut off from the past, by loss of memory or other conditions of the brain, are regarded as ill, unable to function as normal people, lacking human identity; without knowledge of our past we are incomplete. The purpose of history, says Tolstoy, is to teach nations and humanity to know themselves. One of the first things many people do when they retire is to lay siege to the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, in order to discover, and perhaps to write their own history. “History is us”.

Those who have little difficulty accepting these sentiments may also find it easy to share the rather unfashionable view that says simply that history is of the greatest possible value for its own sake. The notion is not quite dead even in our own utilitarian age, and is grounded in a powerful Victorian attitude concerning knowledge generally. This attitude is well expressed by Cardinal Newman’s mid-century belief in “liberal knowledge” as an end in itself, although Newman saw himself as following Cicero, who considered the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake to be the first of what he called “heads of moral excellence”.

What could it be about history that makes such a basic appeal to us? As descendants of those early humans around their campfires, we still have a weakness for a good story, and history, narrative history at least, meets that basic need. History, Cicero said, gives pleasure. Our liking for a good story may be one reason why the “kings and battles” school of history proves so resistant to the efforts of would-be reformers, who would rather we studied the lives of people — “ordinary” people for choice. The Battle of Waterloo is simply a much better story than the calorific intake of a mediaeval peasant. Kings and battles history is not always helpful to the more didactic schools, but it is of inestimable value not only to those who love a good yarn, but also as a golden treasure trove of inspiration for the world’s greatest artists and writers. History as source material for great art can only with difficulty be described as valueless.

Of course this deeper view of the value of history is not without its own utilitarian aspects, its role as provider of the raw material for so much of the world’s great art being only one example. To name another, a fairly logical extension of the thoughts expressed brings us to a consideration of nationalism. Some two hundred years ago Gottfried Herder made it crystal clear how important was the presentation of history in creating awareness of the new German nationhood. Many countries (the United Kingdom an interesting exception), reinforce their national identity with holidays that recall important events in their history; the Fourth of July and Bastille Day come to mind.

A further example of value being taken from history by those who certainly subscribe to the fundamental importance of the subject is to be found in the work of both Hegel, already mentioned, and Karl. Marx. Their philosophies of history have already been discussed in the previous essay, which covered causation in history, but it is worth referring here to the very special role played by history in the formulation of Marxism, an ideology which played such a momentous part in the history of the twentieth century, although there is obviously room to question its value. Marx’s entire economic system rests on his interpretation of the historical struggle of the labouring classes.

Religion, another great human preoccupation, is steeped in history. Religious instruction is in effect the teaching of history, history with some very precise aims it is true, light years from Lord Acton’s view that history should be all but purposeless, and history which may at times be thought to blur the distinction between itself and mythology, but grounded nevertheless in the description of past events. Bede made liberal use of miracles in his writings, but they were historical miracles, and the Gospels themselves, when they were written, set out to provide the new religion of Christianity with some historical credibility. The value of history to the world’s great religions seems incontestable. Without it, would they even exist?

Perhaps the most extreme version of a belief in the value of history may be found in what is an interesting footnote to the role of history in religion. This is the view held by some, that with the decline in religious faith, history should be seen as the real route to truth, perhaps even the sort of truth which was previously found in religion. As noted above, some of the difficulties associated with the congruence of history and truth were looked at in the first of these essays, that on objectivity in history. We can be confident that Kierkegaard, for one, would strongly object to any idea that history could be some sort of replacement for religion, and his objections would in part rest on the matter of objectivity. For in developing his views on what he called subjective truth, he claimed for example that Christian belief in the Crucifixion could not be justified if it depended on belief in the Crucifixion as an historical event. This is because we can never be entirely sure of the accuracy of any historical report; because, he maintained, mere probability about events, (which is in any case continually being updated as new scholarship uncovers new facts about the past), is not enough to justify religious belief; and because the detachment necessary required for a historical approach is totally at odds with the Passion which is inseparable from religious faith.

If, however, we believe with Henri Bergson that what we are is to a great extent made up from our memories of the past, and with Alexander Pope that “the proper study of mankind is man”, then denying history the mantle of religion need not prevent us from according it a very high value.

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